Gallipoli – 98 years on

Gallipoli – 98 years on: Professor Peter Stanley’s speech to Gallipoli Memorial Club symposium, 7 August 2013 (posted to site, 28 October 2013)

Peter Stanley

On 7 August (the anniversary of the August offensive on Gallipoli) the Gallipoli Memorial Club in Sydney hosted a symposium asking questions deserving wide debate. In three sessions a dozen speakers offered reflections that prompted discussion about how Australian do, can and might respond to Gallipoli in history and in memory.

The speakers included those who affirmed their belief in the idea and power of Anzac, such as Lieutenant-General Ken Gillespie, Deputy Chair of the New South Wales Centenary of Anzac Advisory Council, and those more sceptical of the traditional regard for Gallipoli’s place in Australian history. I was invited to take part in a panel discussing with them Gallipoli’s importance to Australia, with Peter Rennert, formerly Australian Consul at Çanakkale, in the chair.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues.

Good morning and thank you to the Gallipoli Memorial Club for the invitation to join in the discussion of the important question: how should Australians think about Gallipoli as we approach the centenary of the campaign? I’m very glad to share this panel with these two gentlemen. Peter Rennert’s invitation came yesterday afternoon, as I was literally lost on Gallipoli – I couldn’t work out from the maps exactly where the 2/10th Gurkhas had been in the August offensive: but then neither could they in 1915.

Gallipoli has always meant a great deal to me, professionally and personally. While at the Australian War Memorial I worked on the permanent Gallipoli gallery (1984) and the exhibitions The Riddles of Anzac (1990) and Çanakkale (2005). At least five of my books deal with the campaign, including Quinn’s Post, Anzac, Gallipoli (2005; the first biography of a place on the peninsula) and my children’s novel, Simpson’s Donkey (2011). I have visited Gallipoli to do field work or to make a film (Revealing Gallipoli, 2005) at least five times.

And I’m drawn to keep writing about it. Yesterday I completed the final words of the manuscript of Lost Boys of Anzac – a book about the dead of 25 April 1915 and what their deaths meant for their families – due to be published in 2014. Gallipoli figures in two future books, one on Indian troops in the campaign – it is the first to be published on that subject and it is planned for 2015 – and a book about Australia and the Armenian genocide, which of course began just as the invasion approached the coast of Turkey. I am also co-writing a play that explores how the war, starting with Gallipoli, affected the official historian Charles Bean. As you see, Gallipoli remains an active part of my work as an historian and writer.

But I must admit that I feel ‘conflicted’ about the place Gallipoli holds in my work and the place which it occupies in Australian history and military history. Why does Gallipoli obsess us? I take a more astringent view of this question than most, though I include myself in this.

Gallipoli perplexes. It was not the most costly or the most significant campaign of the Great War for Australia. It was badly conducted and a dismal failure. It did not comprise the major experience of the Great War nor did it see the greatest casualties. And yet we – and I mean we – can’t seem to stay away from it.

Some people might contend that it’s important because the Australian nation was ‘born’ on Gallipoli. I frankly don’t think that is true. I cannot see how that actually occurred; it’s too mystical an explanation. If it was believed by the generation that fought the war, then I think we need to regard it as an artefact of that period, along with the idea of a White Australia or the idea that Australia was part of the British Empire. That Australia, the Australia of 1915, believed all three ideas. Our Australia has shrugged off two of them, but one of those beliefs persists. But if it’s not true – and I would like to see it explained exactly how the deaths of 8000 Australians in Turkey in 1915 ‘created’ a nation that had already existed for fourteen years – then why are we (again, me included) drawn back there?

TurkGallipoli 1915: Australians guarding a camouflaged Turk (NAA) (possibly a faked photo)

Today I’m approaching this question in my capacity as the newly-minted President of Honest History. This is a recently-formed loose coalition of diverse views, including historians and others, all concerned that the Anzac centenary is getting out of hand (even before it’s begun). We worry that over the period 2014-19 Australians will be exposed to bellicose claptrap – to history that is essentially dishonest: unjustified, exaggerated, distorted; unbalanced even if it is not inaccurate.

Some of us entertain fears that military history is getting out of proportion; that the vast funding devoted to government agencies such as the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Australian War Memorial is skewing history (and indeed, military history) unduly. I essentially accept Marilyn Lake’s argument (put in her What’s Wrong with Anzac?) that this is militarising Australian history, and the amount of attention devoted to military history, especially in schools, is unjustified.

If you argue that this attention is justified, then I would counter that the weight of attention is unbalanced, with far more notice paid to operational history, often celebratory notice, than to where the balance should fall. We say that we loathe war and we want it to be an argument for peace but we still see more books devoted to celebrating Aussie heroes, presenting an unduly parochial interpretation of Australia’s part in the Great War and beyond. We have seen the rise of an ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ school of military historical writing since the appearance of Les Carlyon’s Gallipoli (2001), which set the mould for the ‘Oi, Oi, Oi’ approach which is so lamentably common today.

Honest History’s motto is ‘not only, but also’. It is not only the title of a fondly-remembered comedy program of the 1960s but also a useful rubric for understanding and criticising how Australian history is practised and pursued and how it ought to be conducted. ‘Not only Anzac, but also lots of other strands and themes as well.’ We argue that we should be interested in not only war, but also in other aspects of Australian history.

Not only war at the front but also a rounded understanding of what war entailed and meant for all Australians. Not only Gallipoli but also everything else besides Gallipoli. Not only the Western Front, but also the war’s effects on Australia as a whole. Not only Australia’s war, but also those of allies and enemies. And so on. Adopting an approach that is inclusive rather than exclusive and questioning rather than celebratory will, we contend, give us a clearer, more honest, more truthful understanding of what the Great War meant to those who experienced it and to those of us looking back at it a century on.

So, to answer the questions put to the symposium.

How important is Gallipoli to Australians?

There is no point arguing that it isn’t – it is – or that it shouldn’t be – of course it is and should be. I can’t very well write books about it and then turn around and argue that it’s not worth my time. But why?

It is important partly because Australians feel a curiosity about it – they believe it’s important – but not necessarily for the reasons they think it is. The association with the founding of the nation is a dangerous and unjustifiable myth and the sooner we grow up the better.

I suggest that Gallipoli remains important for two reasons. First, for what it reveals of the Australians of 1914 who so willingly went to war for the empire. (And by ‘it’ I mean also how Gallipoli and the war affected Australians as whole, not just the tiny minority of them on Gallipoli.) Gallipoli and all it entails exposes the ideas, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of Australians of a century ago.

But so, of course, do lots of aspects of Australian history. I think we have to resist the claim that Gallipoli is in some way exceptional or compelling. There’s nothing especially compelling about the experience of 50 000 Australians on a Turkish beach for eight months in 1915. It ought to stand alongside other aspects of Australian history – the conquest and settlement of this continent; the profound ecological changes it experienced; the frontier war fought for its possession; convict Australia; the waves of migration Australia has received; the effects of successive depressions; the achievements of democracy or a multicultural society. Each of these contributes to an understanding of what has made the Australian experience through history: Gallipoli is merely one of those components.

But Gallipoli happens to be the part that draws me repeatedly. So the second reason Gallipoli is justifiably of interest is, I think, that it offers a compelling human experience, not only in the lives and deaths of those on the peninsula, but in the way it affected the lives of many more and for much longer than eight months. My next book, Lost Boys of Anzac, makes this point explicitly, as a demonstration of a new approach to Australia’s military history. It deals with the 101 men of the very first wave to land. The men who also died on 25 April 1915. They are all dead by the book’s half-way point.

But the book continues, tracing the ways in which families bore the anxieties and grief of the Lost Boys’ deaths and by extension argues that the history of Australia’s wars and their effects extend far beyond their chronological boundaries. This is far from the celebration of Gallipoli as a national founding myth.

Is the Gallipoli story just a national myth?

Is the Gallipoli story ‘just a national myth’? No, not just, but it is tainted by myth, not just Australian, but also Turkish, as well as by the myths that infest the Great War as a whole. For example, it is widely believed that Gallipoli was fought by bungling British generals, a myth that is popular in Australia because it strengthens the nationalist conviction that our generals were better. But apparently bungling generals could not be Turkish – no one believes that the Turks had bungling generals, even though the vast majority of troops killed on Gallipoli were Turkish, many of whom died in massed attacks more lethal than any ordered by ‘British butchers and bunglers’, as a notorious book once called them.

But national myths are especially prevalent on Gallipoli, presumably as a way of making sense of the slaughter of a failed campaign. Australians not only propagate their own myths, but they credulously endorse the myths of others. For example, Australians have so far achieved a welcome reconciliation with modern Turkey that they now thoughtlessly endorse the untruth perpetrated in the celebrated paragraph published in 1934 in the name of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

This paragraph – the one that begins ‘You, the mothers’ – claims, absolutely falsely, that Turks look after Anzac graves and that Turks revere the Anzacs as their own sons. That is not correct. But it is not even true to claim that Turkish visitors to Gallipoli are even interested in the graves of their former enemies.

This famous paragraph is, however, a useful vehicle to cement relations between Turkey and Australia and so has been endorsed and quoted by successive Australian prime ministers, even though it is not historically justifiable. Indeed, the falsity of the claim that Turks revere dead Anzacs can be tested and refuted, simply by observing the behaviour of Turkish visitors to the peninsula. They visit sites of importance to Turkey (understandably) but they do not visit Anzac graves. The only Turks in the cemeteries are those employed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which has been solely responsible for the cemeteries’ upkeep since the war’s end.

Is Gallipoli’s importance based on tenuous history?

I am not arguing that Gallipoli is not important. I am arguing that we should see it as important, despite the tenuous and false claims that have been made for and about it. Gallipoli deserves to be understood honestly, in all of the shades of ugliness, horror, brutality as well as the highlights of nobility, courage and honour.

But the key idea is honesty. We must stop colouring the picture falsely. It is not true that Anzacs and Turks really respected each other and would have preferred not to fight (or even, would have preferred to fight ‘the English’); that Australia was somehow inexplicably ‘born’ on 25 April 1915; that Mustafa Kemal was the war’s best general; that all British generals were fools and butchers; that Turkey has cared for ‘our’ dead and that Turks actually regard the invaders of a century ago as family. All of these notions are tenuous and they have no place in the Gallipoli story except as illustrations of the ineradicable human desire to find the positive in such a tale of horror and as examples of how history can be turned to serve purposes besides those of honest understanding.

HaircutGallipoli, May 1915: Major Glasfurd getting his hair cut (NAA)

Should our national mythology focus more on the victories of the Western Front?

No, we should not have a national mythology. Mythologies, which by their nature are not true, have no place in our understanding of history. They are pernicious. They mislead and distort. They lead to bombast and bragging and to untruths that do us no favours. We can understand why the idea that Australia was somehow ‘born’ at Anzac Cove should have been proposed and propagated. That idea was important to the young nation that had endured the Great War. But a mature, independent, confident Australia today has no need of such tales, any more than grown-ups need fairy stories to go to sleep.

I (and those who support the idea of Honest History) believe that Australians can tolerate knowing the truth about their part in this war and other wars. Though they might pride themselves on their independence of mind, they are easily led and will fall for patriotic blandishments more easily than they imagine. But many want to learn the truth and will respond to it honestly.

My experience with my book Bad Characters (2010) gives me hope. Sub-titled Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force, it explored the dark side of the Anzac legend. It disclosed that Australian troops had higher rates of absence and venereal disease than comparable forces, that many offences went beyond ‘larrikinism’ and that they included crimes such as rape, murder and self-inflicted wounds. It challenged the assumption that Australians fought as mates by showing that as the war continued rates of desertion increased; those who paid the greatest price were those who did not go absent.

But in the three years since the book appeared no one has argued that the book was unfounded or that it disclosed things better hidden. Instead, readers seem to have appreciated that it told what could be justified as true, even if it was uncomfortable or unpalatable.

Part of that story involved accounts of men wounding themselves to get away from Gallipoli. I believe that Australians want to hear the truth about their history and that includes Gallipoli. Are we brave enough to reject myths and offer those curious to understand our past what we can regard as the truth? That is a further question worth pondering.

Professor Peter Stanley, of University of New South Wales, Canberra, has published 25 books, mostly in the field of Australian military-social history. He was formerly Principal Historian at the Australian War Memorial, where he worked from 1980 to 2007. He is President of Honest History.


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